Loaded Sages hoping for a state return

Loaded Sages hoping for a state return

MONTICELLO — It had been 265 days.

That's how long the Monticello boys' basketball team had to wait for a new opponent after finishing fourth at the 2017 Class 2A state tournament. And the Sages weren't rusty, blowing by Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin 75-60 this Friday night.

Coach Kevin Roy's players could hardly wait for the opportunity to get back on a winning track after dropping both of their games at Peoria's Carver Arena last March.

"We've been wanting to get on the court the last month, I'd say," senior Luke Stokowski said the day before Monticello defeated BHRA on the road.

"After AAU season it was just slow, waiting for our first game," senior Calvin Fisher added. "And then we figured out that we don't have a game until December, when we start practice Nov. 6, so it's going to go even longer. So we've been anxious."

The excitement picks up again tonight for the Sages when they make their home debut against Auburn at 7:30 at Robert and Dorothy Miller Gymnasium.

The anticipation is well placed for a team that returns much of a core that led it to state hardware, a first in program history. Gone are Isiah Florey and Jarron Roy — both starters in Monticello's final game last season — but Fisher, Stokowski and fellow seniors Johnny Dawson and Noah Wright are joined by a bevy of promising juniors.

"We've got good depth, so we've been able to mix the guys up in practice and challenge multiple guys at the guard position," Kevin Roy said last week. "But ... they're tired of each other, and they're ready to play a game at this point."

The waiting game produced time well spent for the Sages, however. The school's football team did not make as deep of a postseason run as it is accustomed to, losing in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs, which led to full basketball workouts far sooner than usual.

"Last year, I think we had one practice with the football players returning before our first game," Stokowski said. "This year, they started off practice on the first day we did, so our chemistry is a lot better this year. I think we're a couple steps ahead of the game this year than we were first game last year."

That's a scary prospect for the Sages' foes, with Auburn next on that list today as Monticello opens its home slate. But Roy's crew also has to contend with playing in the Illini Prairie Conference for the first time, setting up games against not only former Okaw Valley Conference enemies St. Joseph-Ogden, St. Thomas More, Rantoul and Unity, but also new leaguemates Bloomington Central Catholic, Chillicothe IVC, Prairie Central, Pontiac and Olympia.

"As a coach, I look at that as a challenge," Roy said. "Our guys will get a lot of experience seeing new coaches, different styles of defense and offense. It's going to be a learning process, not only for the kids, but for the coaching staff as well."

But Roy thinks it's a challenge Monticello is up to, specifically if it pays attention to detail on the defensive end. Roy highlighted that as a key area of required improvement for the Sages should they wish to travel to Peoria once more at year's end.

Monticello's positives currently outweigh its negatives, though. Juniors Devin Graham, Alek Bundy and Benton Singleton offer ball-handling, speed and size, respectively, off the bench. And senior Cameron Dyson, in his first season with the team, carries a 6-foot-7 frame that can help him finish at the rim and contest rebounds.

The 6-6 Fisher and 6-4 Stokowski said size — or, as Stokowski deemed it, lankiness — is a major plus for the Sages right now, though far from the only one.

"I'd say we're a very smart team, too," Fisher said. "We've got good IQ, and we don't have an ego on the team."

And that final point is really the story of these Sages, a battle-tested group that isn't worried about personal accolades. As Fisher puts it, the squad has a pretty simple goal for this 2017-18 campaign after finishing 23-7 last year: "Win more games."

"It's not really individual. We're supposed to be working more as a team," Stokowski added. "So as a team, I feel like we should dominate."